I’m always fascinated by the ways that garden design intersects with other art forms. The connection between gardens and painting is obvious and intuitive, and has a long history in garden design. After all, English landscape “improvers” like Capability Brown were really attempting to create idealized landscapes common in paintings by the likes of Poussin and Lorraine.
Gertrude Jekyll was a painter before she became a garden designer and her borders are often said to be composed with a painter’s eye. And most of us are familiar with Monet’s garden at Giverny, which he called his “most beautiful masterpiece.”
Thanks to its three dimensional nature, sculpture, too, is a natural partner of garden design, and sculpture and statuary have been features of garden design since its beginnings.
One art form that we don’t often find incorporated into garden design these days is language. Poetry. I’m not talking about the cute little signs you can buy at the garden center that say stuff like “So many weeds, so little thyme.” No, I mean language fused intentionally and thoughtfully with other components of a garden by the designer. I mean language that is integral to a design rather than just thrown in as an afterthought.
The Chinese were good at this. They liked poetry in their gardens, and not just in the form of cute puns. Descriptive signs and inscribed couplets are found all over ancient Chinese scholar gardens. Rather than just labeling parts of the garden with something straightforward like “Meditation Garden” or “Woods Path,” Chinese scholars were meticulous in selecting just the right morally and aesthetically pleasing name. Check these out these descriptors:
The Gorge of Dripping Verdure
The Grotto of Secret Clouds
The Wind of Autumn over the Ocean of the World
Maybe a little over the top, but you’ve got to appreciate their passion for language and their desire to capture the spirit of the garden in words. We certainly don’t try that hard.
In addition to signs and names, Chinese strolling gardens often featured couplets written on vertical panels to resemble scrolls of calligraphy. Maggie Keswick, in The Chinese Garden, said that these couplets aimed for “just the right mixture of tradition and metaphor” and offered this example from The Drunkard’s Pavillion:
“Three pole-thrust lengths of bankside willows green,
one fragrant breath of bankside flowers sweet.”
Not bad. Ten syllables each line, sweet rhythm, Shakespeare would give it a thumbs up. Actually, what interests me more is the idea of having a “Drunkard’s Pavilion” in the first place. Seems there was a place in the garden for all manner of folk back in ancient China.
Couplets were also added to Chinese gardens by groups of visiting literati, who would stroll around and comment on all of the garden’s surprising and artful features. Polished rocks and other surfaces were left clear so that visitors could inscribe their impressions and emotions, and these bits of poetic commentary were thought to lend richness and erudition to the garden. Keswick notes:
“In China a garden is often compared to a piece of landscape art, and the inscriptions in a garden are perfectly analagous to the colophons in a painting.”
I haven’t done exhaustive research or anything, but it seems to me that language and poetry is nearly absent from western garden design. With the exception of Biblical and literary quotes in cemeteries and memorials, I really cannot think of any well-known gardens that integrate the written word with other elements of landcape design.
Of course, there is Ian Hamilton Finlay. This Scottish poet and sculptor, who passed away in 2006, mixed up language and landscape in a most intriguing way. On an abandoned farm in the hills near Edinburgh, Finlay created a landscape infused with language. A visitor to this landscape — which Finlay named Little Sparta — will encounter words and phrases at every turn. The inscriptions appear in all manner of objects: rocks, plaques, urns, bridges, statuary, etc. and may be subtle or (as in the photo below) quite assertive.
What exactly Finlay was up to with his landscape art I cannot say. This website for Wild Hawthorn Press, which publishes art books about Finlay, states that “Little Sparta is a deliberate correction of the modern sculpture garden through its maker’s revisiting the Neoclassical tradition of the garden as a place provocative of poetic, philosophic and even political thought.”
While you’re chewing on that, here’s another piece of (would you call it sculpture?) from Little Sparta:
“A cottage, a field, a plow.” The inscription makes me think of Scottish crofters, the small, self-sufficient farmers who were driven off their land by the English during the Highland Clearances. The sequence of three singular nouns has a nice rhythm — ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum — iambs I believe. The language complements the simple, home-spun wooden gate. Gorgeous. The whole vignette — the gate, the poetry, the sense of anticipation created for the visitor — is certainly reminiscent of the thresholds in ancient Chinese scholar gardens. See:
I wish there were more designers who melded language and gardens together, because I think each art form has great potential to elevate the other. I’ve even thought about ways to incorporate snippets of poetry into my own garden — I’m not sure I can pull this off without seeming outrageously pretentious, but hey, I’m 40 now so who really cares?
John Dixon Hunt, garden historian and professor at Penn State, said that “the ideal gardener is a poet.” The Chinese seemed to understand this. Finlay, too. Why don’t the rest of us?